By Gerri Brightwell; Torrey House Press, 2022; 240 pages; $16.95.
“I know it all sounds crazy, but everything’s crazy — fossils making people sick, children being snatched from their parents, the weather turned upside down,” Jimmy Cho, one of the characters in Fairbanks author Gerri Brightwell’s new novel, “Turnback Ridge,” says midway through the story. “So much has been privatized — prisons, detention centers, you name it. I’m not sure there’s much difference between the government and the big corporations it hires to do its work.”
Apart from fossils making people sick — the idea lying at the heart of this Alaska-based tale set in the not-too-distant future — all of the ills mentioned in this brief utterance have already arrived. Children are taken from their parents at our border. Historically rare weather events now batter our world routinely. And in Iraq, the coalition between government and business resulted in civilian contractors committing war crimes while working for our military and subsequently receiving government pardon for it.
So perhaps a fossil attaching itself to a child’s hand, causing him to break out in a scaly rash and become deathly ill, isn’t that far-fetched. Scientists monitoring the melting arctic permafrost warn that unknown microbes with which humans have little or no historic contact might lie frozen there, awaiting release. Given how strange the past few years have been, Brightwell’s genre-blending dystopian vision of a climate-changed Alaska, a story drawing from horror, science fiction and political thrillers, isn’t entirely implausible.
Indeed, in light of recent climate and political developments, “Turnback Ridge” opens with a fully imaginable sequence. Nash Preston is racing through the weather-altered landscape traversed by the Glenn Highway, accompanied by his two sons, 16-year-old Chris and 10-year-old Robbie. Nash adopted Chris when he married his now-vanished wife, Maria, originally from Mexico. The trio is rushing to escape the country because Nash is Canadian, the boys both children of immigrants and the government has, for all intents, outlawed naturalized citizens and their offspring, consigning them to detention in facilities run by private contractors. The rounding-up work has been handed over to bounty hunters, who likely snatched Maria. A team of them is on Nash’s trail.
Brightwell, who is originally from Great Britain, is addressing growing fears many immigrants experience these days. While Americans born in her native country have so far largely escaped the immigrant-bashing that has grown frighteningly commonplace on one side of our political spectrum, she undoubtedly knows from history how rapidly and violently nativist movements can expand the parameters of their hatred. The fear this creates in both their actual and potential targets is a theme dominating this tale.
It’s a fear gnawing Nash when he pulls over to fix a flat. While changing the tire, he occupies the boys by sending them up a recently eroded nearby wash to look for fossils. The effects of climate change on Alaska that Brightwell depicts here aren’t blockbuster-movie dramatic. They’re mundane, yet quietly catastrophic. The state is hotter and wetter, and what has long been held under ice and rock is emerging through thawing and erosion. That ground movement has revealed a strange, egg-like fossil that Robbie excitedly discovers. Unable to identify it, Nash tells Robbie to keep it as they struggle onward toward Canada on an under-inflated spare.
Robbie becomes emotionally attached to his find, and during a fruitless stay in Glennallen seeking a tire shop, Chris retaliates in teenage fashion by tossing it into a fish tank at a Chinese restaurant. The elderly waiter, who we subsequently learn is Cho, fishes it out. Robbie defensively clings to it in his sleeping bag that night, and the next morning finds it physically attached to his hand by a mesh of tendrils.
As the book, progresses, the fossil will come to inhabit Robbie. But for the moment, fear of being captured while seeking medical attention proves more frightening than a rock adhered to his hand. With the bad tire still slowing them, the trio flees Glennallen for Canada, where the family, thanks to Nash’s citizenship, can hopefully take refuge. As they drive, Robbie grows violently ill, and the tendrils of the object embedded in his palm start spreading across his body, expanding by the hour.
It’s a given that they’re going to get caught — the book’s back cover notes this, so I’m not giving too much away. The boys disappear, and Nash, still free and now teamed with Cho, searches for them on a ridge along the Tok Cut-Off, where a rumored detention center has been built. Nash and Cho are seized, and Nash awakens in the privately run, largely underground facility adjacent to an abandoned mine. The whereabouts of the boys remain unknown. What happens from there — I won’t detail, except that we learn what the egg-like objects do to their human hosts.
I will say that what transpires in the facility addresses questions about our privately run detention centers and their frightening potential to inflict human rights abuses on internees. The nightmare Brightwell depicts is far-fetched for the moment, but history shows that nations don’t decline into fascism all at once; they get there one small atrocity at a time. As society accepts each downward step, new lurches are made. Brightwell is alerting readers to one possible end result. The fictional horror story of the rock is unlikely, but the human horror story isn’t.
The book comes to a bit of a somewhat frustratingly abrupt halt, with the main storyline quickly resolved. From a reader’s standpoint, this could have been played out with greater detail. There are also many loose ends, but they’re of the sort begging for a sequel: What has the United States government become; what is the nature of the life that emerging from the stones; how will the climate continue changing? Should she follow this story further, Brightwell can continue asking what Cho pondered in the passage quoted above: “What kind of world are we living in?”